To say globalisation has transformed the world is a cliché, and that includes literature and their narrators. Two India-born novelists Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh have perhaps been the most successful in vividly portraying the lives of people transformed by globalisation without explicitly using the word. Since the early 1980s, Rushdie and Ghosh have written ambitious novels that give meaning to our globalised world without setting out to do just that. In their fiction, they have honoured the individual’s survival instinct, cheering his ability to adapt and change his own self.
Novelists have often stepped outside the comfort zone of their birthplace. But in their imagined narratives, they rarely cease being themselves and guide readers at every step: Ernest Hemingway takes us to the Spanish Civil War, Paris between the Wars, an African safari or smuggling in Cuba; his protagonist may be Nick Adams, Jake Barnes or Francis Macomber, but Hemingway’s strong identity dominates the narrative. Graham Greene transports readers to Panama, Congo and Vietnam, but the leitmotif of strong Catholic guilt is never far. In more contemporary fiction, Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo have written about the universe around them, and Kazuo Ishiguro offers distilled observations of a society, as in an elegant miniature painting. In DeLillo’s case, the novels capture global phenomena – terrorism, international crime, Cold War – and the reality from the vantage position of an American view of the world, from the top of the mountain. What happens to the individual in a world without borders, who crosses frontiers as he grasps to create his own universe, is not central to the concern.
Not so with Ghosh or Rushdie.
In the planned trilogy named after a merchant ship, Ibis, of which the first two novels are now published, Ghosh chronicles the ship’s voyage and tells the stories of large nations China and India; large companies, centering on the East India Company; the global trade of opium and indentured labor; and how the process of globalisation affects individual lives.
Both novelists view the world as their canvas, ignoring borders. Ghosh’s first novel, The Circle of Reason (1986), was about a weaver fleeing to North Africa. In a later non-fiction work, In An Antique Land (1992), he traced the story of perhaps the world’s first overseas Indian, a slave sold to a merchant in Egypt. In another novel, The Glass Palace (2000), Ghosh recounted the story of Burma during the last century, seen through the eyes of a young boy who grows up to become a trader. And now, with Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011), Ghosh has recreated the saga of individuals tossed around the world by the waves of economic forces and how in the process they shape language and culture, linking indentured laborers in one part of the world with mercantilist traders in the city, who want to keep China addicted to opium.
Ghosh’s expansive vision views history from the perspective of the subaltern, the one at the bottom of the mountain, forced by circumstance to adapt to new surroundings.
While Rushdie remains the finest chronicler of India’s most hybrid city, Bombay, where he was born, he has deepened our understanding of migration and how people adjust and triumph. Rushdie admires the human spirit, the bravery of the individual who crosses the line. He revels in the heterogeneity and multi-everything nature of globalization, refusing to be overwhelmed by it.
Neither novelist actually uses the word “globalization”; neither claims that all consequences of globalization are positive. Both celebrate the vibrancy and diversity that hybridity brings to monocultural societies.
The two novelists show the interconnectedness of nations, people and cultures by interweaving lives. The individual tossed about is real: Ghosh’s aristocrat in the Ibis novels is an unexpected prisoner; Rushdie’s Bollywood star in The Satanic Verses (1988) literally drops out of sky when the airplane in which he is travelling gets blown up by terrorists. These individuals hold on to the territory they land on and build their own niches, mingling with the local culture, often enriching it, and just as often, drawing from the culture around them, becoming less of what they were, but not quite like the others around them.
Both Ghosh and Rushdie are critical of the forces that affect their characters’ lives. In Ghosh’s trilogy, the company that swears by laissez faire and free trade insists that the treaty ports stay open only to its own ships, using force if the local authorities don’t comply. Anything that could not be measured or counted has no value; if something has value, it can be traded. Ghosh is appalled, and the power of description reveals his outrage over what happens to those affected by historical events. In other novels about trade, the hero is often the colonizer – think of J.G. Farrell’s fine novel, The Singapore Grip (1978), in which Singapore’s multi-ethnic population figures only marginally, often as something exotic. Rushdie’s migrants in London’s suburbs are exotic for the locals, but when they transform the city around them, the city doesn’t even notice, as in the chapter “A City Visible but Unseen” in The Satanic Verses. In so doing, Rushdie points out the dangers of multiculturalism.
Connecting other worlds, Rushdie has taken his readers to Moorish Spain in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and The Enchantress of Florence (2008). If Rushdie applauds the chutneyfication of our world, or how the immigrant changes the world he inhabits, Ghosh decries the inhumanity of the process making the individual into an immigrant, questioning the unequal power balance. Rushdie’s characters sometimes influence history even if inadvertently – think of Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children (1981) – while Ghosh’s characters are history’s bystanders, castaways and victims, but not objects of pity.
Both men have challenged the paternalistic view of the British Commonwealth. Ghosh withdrew his novel from the shortlist of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2001, because he felt a prize that did not recognize the merit of languages other than English spoken throughout the Commonwealth was fundamentally flawed. For his part, in 1984, Rushdie wrote that “Commonwealth Literature” doesn’t exist.
To be sure, this is not to suggest that Rushdie and Ghosh necessarily agree with each other’s worldview, yet rather point out how they have given meaning to globalisation, showing how crossing the border is almost an instinctive act.
In the Inaugural Tanner Lecture at Yale in 2002, Rushdie reflected on how frontiers and borders shape us, trying to confine us and yet lure us to cross. The first frontier, he said then, was the edge of the water, where, at some point, a living thing came up from the ocean, and crossed the boundary and found that it could breathe outside water, unlike the countless others who had perished, gasping for breath. “They were just fish who by chance learned how to crawl… and so, in a way, are we.” It’s the same drive, he adds, “that made Columbus’s ships head for the edge of the world, or the pioneers take to their covered wagons, the image of Armstrong taking his first moonwalk echoes the first movements of life on earth. In our deepest natures, we are frontier-crossing beings.”
And once that step is taken, there is no going back, as Rushdie reminds in another essay about the film The Wizard of Oz: “The truth is once we have left our childhood places … armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that ‘there’s no place like home,’ but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.”
Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer who was born in Bombay. He’s the author of Offense: The Hindu Case, published by Seagull, 2009, an account of Hindu nationalist intolerance of art and literature. His collection of travel essays will be published by Tranquebar. Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Courtesy, YaleGlobal Online